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Shallow Shipwreck: Surveying Davidson’s Adriatic

University of Wisconsin Sea Grant funds maritime study in Sturgeon Bay

Image: University of Wisconsin Sea Grant
By Aaron R. Conklin, University of Wisconsin Sea Grant
It’s sitting in 14 inches of water, but it contains more than 120 years of history. This week, the uncovering begins.
Backed by funding from the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, a pair of maritime archaeologists with the Wisconsin Historical Society lead a team of divers who’ll survey the wreck of the Adriatic, a 202-foot wooden schooner retired and abandoned off the piers of the Bay Shipbuilding Co. in Sturgeon Bay. The Adriatic is one of several ships built by the legendary timber magnate James Davidson, who continued to build and sail massive wooden vessels during the late 1800s, when others had moved on to iron and steel.
For the next two weeks, the team, led by Tamara Thomsen and Chad Gulseth, will spend their days measuring, sketching, photographing and mapping the Adriatic, a three-masted schooner barge built in 1889 and eventually converted to a self-unloading barge in 1914.  The team includes 30 Maritime Studies graduate students from East Carolina University, including Caitlyn Zant, whose participation in the survey project is being funded by UW Sea Grant.
The Adriatic is one of eight Davidson vessels whose wrecks lay in Wisconsin waters. Four of them are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Australasia, the wooden bulk carrier the dive team surveyed in the waters near Whitefish Dunes State Park last year. Of the Davidson wrecks, the Adriatic is the most accessible.
Ending up abandoned at a pier may not be as sexy as the storm-swept waters and sailors lost that feature in the stories of other shipwrecks, but the Adriatic still has a strong historical significance.
“What’s interesting is that it’s the first self-unloading schooner barge to sail the Great Lakes,” said Gulseth, referring to the gigantic boom on the ship that made removing massive stone cargo simpler for sailors. “Some of that equipment is still on the site.” 
The ship’s boom ended up killing the Adriatic’s captain when it fell on him in 1920. Ten years later, the ship was officially retired and abandoned.  It remained where it rotted and sank, between the pilings where a floating dry dock is stored during the winter.
“A lot of wrecks we see in Sturgeon Bay are hulks, put in place as a breakwater,” explained Thomsen. “The Adriatic offered protection for the shipyard, preventing shoreline erosion and wave damage during storms.”
The fact that the Adriatic lies in shallow waters—some parts are in as little as one foot- -offers several advantages to the dive team. They’ll have warmer water in which to dive and greater light penetration to aid visibility. The team will also be able to communicate more easily with team members on the dive boats.
“This may be one of the few advantages of lower water levels in the Great Lakes,” quipped Thomsen.

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